Foucault on Power
March 19 , 2014
In responding to Chomsky, he says that in order to envision a different society, we have
to unmask institutions that claim to be objective. Power will always readjust itself to
reform and changes in political structures – it will always adapt!
He is challenging the pure middle understanding of power (the sovereign conception of
power), which is exerted onto an obedient population. Arendt also challenged it. Foucault
is saying that power merges in many different relationships – it does not just come from
the top. Up until this point he is the same as Arendt.
• Contemporary examples are very political, because they are not usually
recognized as political. Things like grades and transcripts are actually technique
and tactics in political power that start from the bottom.
• We cannot assume that the law is uniform and supreme, or that the state is
completely sovereign. We cannot assume any overall domination, because we
cannot begin with metatheories. Postmodernity is the condition in which we can
no longer believe in grand narratives or meta narratives that explain all of society.
• We have to look at the concrete and the empirical – from the roots. This is where
contemporary theory must come from. This leads to the realization that power is
actually much more omniscient and omnipresent.
• Much broader than Arendt’s approach.
Types of Power – They can mix!
1. Sovereign Power – No longer the predominant way that power operates in
society, but we still continue to think of power in this way. It is both historical and
a discourse or way of theorizing power. Foucault describes this power as the right
to kill a subject. Thus, places that still employ the death penalty are examples of
contemporary sovereign power systems. This power actually died out with the rise
2. Disciplinary Power – The question is how to preserve order and govern the
dangerous intermixing of bodies and difference. Disciplinary Power is the answer.
It is about mobilizing these bodies to the task of production. Addresses itself to
particular individuals – evaluates individuals on the singular level.
3. Biopower – Unlike disciplinary, emerges with the invention of statistic modeling.
Health is a primary area where this is used. This is more about the macro than the
micro theory of power.
One cannot be outside of power. Traditionally political theory has conceptionalized
power as a very limited sphere (e.g. the distinction of the private and public realm
presupposes an existence outside of power). He claims to analyze power, to see how it
operates to understand how individuals are manageable entities.
Disciplinary Power Different than sovereign power, it is present at the micro level. It is destination! It applies
itself to movements such as factories, schools, militaries and the way soldiers are trained
to move their bodies. Certain bodily movements are prescribed for some people.
• Disciplinary Power at Work
Foucault was one of the greatest resources we have for assessing our current
With sovereign power, it exerted itself through the violence on the body, and application
of the King’s power. Now we have the time table of prisoners – it is not the same, but
much more effective of this type of power. We are not actually becoming more humane in
controlling people and populations, but are just more effective. (e.g. Not ripping limbs off
of prisoners in the square, but something far worse).
1 Centu y
Looking at the plague, when it breaks out, everything was recorded – what was to be
done and what happened.
• Barricading and prohibition on leaving the town. Those who disobey are punished
• Each how was to be locked from the outside, where a quarantine was imposed.
The idea was that you had enough rations to survive.
• Families were grounded to one place (locked in), with movement punishable by
death or severe penalty.
• The plague was representative of one of the most dangerous intermixing of bodies
and confusion. For them it represented confusions, met only through order and
disciplinary measures. This type of power emerged in response to the plague.
• From this point the